It's my long-held theory that frozen coffee drinks are the best idea most routinely botched.
Starbucks' Frappuccino, for example, should be the most awesome summer refreshment, adding refreshing iciness to the kick of coffee. But it's not. It's overwhelmingly sweet with a cloying aftertaste, it's milky instead of icy, and it barely tastes like coffee. Even adding an espresso shot to the basic coffee Frappuccino has little impact on all of that syrupy sweetness.
Most chains' frozen blended coffee drinks are similarly afflicted, tending to have powdered mixes or syrups as their bases and winding up more like frosty sugar bombs (or high fructose corn syrup bombs) than actual coffee drinks. Even a relatively high-end chain such as Peet's Coffee & Tea lets its Caffe Freddo be dominated by sweet milkiness (and we'll just avoid discussion of Dunkin' Donuts' Coolatta).
The reason for this, I think, is that these shops and many of their customers don't generally view frozen coffee drinks as coffee. These drinks may be seen as gateways to coffee for young sippers whose taste buds aren't yet attuned to java bitterness, but anyone who appreciates coffee in all of its complex glory isn't supposed to desire it in such a bastardized form.
Intelligentsia, for instance, offered an iced espresso horchata some summers back touted as winning a national tasting competition after being created by an Intelligentsia barista. It was delicious, the espresso boldly playing off the sweet cinnamon-tinged rice milk of the traditional Latin American/Spanish iced drink.
It was a seasonal item, but when I asked about it the following summer, a server told me that Intelligentsia had axed it because the boutique Chicago-based chain was focusing on more serious coffee offerings. Now at Intelligentsia you can get a straight-up iced coffee, billed as cold-brewed, but nothing so playful and impure as an iced espresso horchata.
Although I appreciate the quality of Intelligentsia's variously sourced and prepared coffees and espressos, sometimes on a hot, sunny day, I like to sip something cool and somewhat sweet through a straw, and a regular iced coffee doesn't do the trick. I'd also prefer something that's not as heavy as a milkshake. Plenty of ice creams and gelatos boast strong coffee/espresso flavors. Why can't a frozen drink?
It can, and my tastings over the years have turned up one clear winner.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Granita di Caffe from Caffe RoM, which has three downtown locations (the Hyatt Center at 71 S. Franklin St., Prudential Plaza at 180 N. Stetson Ave. and 400 E. South Water St.).
"Granitas are a very traditional Sicilian summer treat, and so we're always trying to pay respect back to the heritage of Italian coffee and coffee bars," said RoM owner Jim Louras.
Italian granitas often are desserts made from flavored liquids that are partially or totally frozen and scraped, shaved, stirred or bonked with a spoon to get those delicate crystals. RoM's granita is unambiguously a drink made in what looks like an oversize Slurpee machine. The ingredients are simple: espresso (the Gusto Crema blend from the Seattle-based Caffe Umbria, Louras said) plus sugar and whole milk that, when all churned together amid the machine's frosted coils, achieve an icy, granular texture.
"The sugar draws out the caramel notes of the coffee itself, and the milk gives it that creamy mouth feel and adds a little bit of fat to the flavor as well," Louras said. "It's a recipe that I've used for over 20 years, and it's a recipe that's been passed down now for a couple of generations."
The texture is close to perfect — richer and more refined than a Slurpee, not as heavy or frothy as your typical milk-based drink that's been thrown into a blender — and the espresso remains front and center with just enough sweetness to offset the bitterness that you're inclined to suck it all up through your straw quickly.
Just be warned that although Louras wouldn't divulge how many espresso shots are in a 16- or 20-ounce serving, either size of Granita di Caffe should satisfy your caffeine jones for many hours. RoM's granita machines generally make their seasonal debuts around May 15 and return to storage Oct. 1, Louras said. Then the granita withdrawal kicks in.